“Battle of the Sexes” (2017)
Running Time: 121 minutes
Written by: Simon Beaufoy
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Featuring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Eric Christian Olsen
Bobby Riggs: I’m the ladies number one. I’m the champ. Why would I lose?
Billie Jean King: Because dinosaurs can’t play tennis.
With last year seemingly being a watershed for women in film for a variety of reasons, the sexual scandals that have been uncovered, the great roles that have come about as well as the record breaking super hero movie “Wonder Woman” (2017), this new film from Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris may seem like an after thought, but it is actually something more enigmatic than at first glance. Not only is “Battle of the Sexes” (2017) a film about rampant sexism and the battle to fight that, it is also about the prejudices of the time, when people could not follow their hearts as society at large would persecute as well as hound them into the ground. This last aspect has huge echoes through to today, especially in the US where civil as well as social rights are under attack from the highest levels of government as well as Middle America.
Directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris who are known for their Oscar nominated (winning for Alan Arkin and Best Screenplay) “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) which, like this new film dealt with gender issues as well as challenging societal norms in terms of beauty pageants as well as familial roles. It was a huge success in terms of box office, critical acclaim and annual awards. What this new film does of course is to act as a period piece that is based around a real event, fictionalizing some aspects as well as highlighting others. To its credit it maintains a balancing act between at least three separate main narratives, as well as a few minor ones. To be fair the one major criticism of mine is that the various narrative strands become a bit attenuated so the audience ends up getting pieces of each one, but never a full deep dive, which is a disservice to the real people that are being portrayed.
“Battle of the Sexes” dramatizes the events leading up to the 1973 match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Robert Larimore Riggs (Steve Carell), and their personal lives. After a tumultuous personal life that ends with Riggs in a broken marriage he hits upon the idea of a challenge match against the top woman player, boasting that even at age 55 he can beat any woman. King declines, but Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who recently beat King in a match, accepts. Riggs easily defeats Court and King decides she has to accept his challenge.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film led by its two stars Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs who at this stage of their careers have proven that they can do anything. Both of these actors inhabit their roles as well as echoing the real personalities in a very eerie way, which works in the movies favor, legitimizing them as well as being exceptionally believable. Not only do both of the actors have to play the parts of famous people they also have to show a few sides to their personalities giving three dimensional performances that jump off the screen and make this a must see film. Their preparation as well as execution is flawless, it is only a shame the film was not more successful as they are worth the admission price alone. When portraying real people who are larger than life it is imperative to make them human and not some other larger than life character, this has been done here effectively enough that after a while you do start to empathize with both.
The film is rounded out with a stellar supporting cast led by Brit Andrea Riseborough as King’s lover Marilyn Barnett who meet when Bennett is Kings hairdresser. They have to hide their relationship from everyone, as a Lesbian affair would have ruined King, who was married to a man at the time. Riseborough who has been around for some time working in the US as well as in the UK has made a name for herself in great supporting roles, which is her role in this film. This could have been a showy performance but Riseborough internalizes much of the emotion underplaying the part so as to not have to match Stone’s flashiness so that you understand what each person is going through. The rest of the cast is rounded out with a colorful performance by comedienne Sarah Silverman (coming off her great performance in “I Smile Back” (2017)), the always reliable Bill Pullman as a sexist tennis official and commentator, Elisabeth Shue as Riggs wife, Alan Cumming as a fashion designer and Natalie Morales as Rosie Casals, a tennis player. There are many more terrific minor performances but these are definitly the highlights.
The problem with the film is that there is so much plot to mine that the screenwriter Simon Beaufoy doesn’t know how much to concentrate on each aspect, or what the most important is, which means we do not spend enough time on any one arc. That is not to say that the main thread, the game between Riggs and King is not played out with a conclusion coming from that, it is, but it seems like an afterthought in the end. In fact there could be entire films given over to almost each element of this story, which is how important and big each plot point is. What we get is paint by numbers story that whilst it is extremely important each part seems relegated to another, without a central thread running through it.
As this is a period film, which is set in the 1970s the look and feel of “Battle of the Sexes” is of utmost importance as it is the glue that holds it all together. If the audience does not buy the world in which it operates then this impacts on all sections of the movie. The first aspect of the movie is the costumes which all look authentic with their style and colors which are in direct contrast to many other movies today, they are unique and work well. The sets and locations look like they could be straight out of a documentary, it is refreshing to see the use of CGI to enhance the picture to give a look of authenticity, it places the era precisely.
The other elements I enjoyed within the film was the setting up of the women’s tour, as well as all the issues the women had with that, getting a sponsor, paying their own way as well as pay equity which haunts the workplace today. The fact that King had to hide her sexual identity for decades is a major part as well, with her leading a triple life, one on the tour, one with her husband and one with her lover which would have been torture, again something that is echoed today, with the added twist that things have not progressed much further. You need only see how many people are still closeted who are public figures. Finally the gender equality issue where women are seen as equals to men is something that the film is supposed to be primarily about, when it focuses on that it comes alive mainly when Riggs and King are jabbing at each other – it is no surprise to know they were friendly in real life.
The quality of this film is plain to see, it has amazing performance which both Stone and Carrel have been nominated for in a variety of different guilds. The only real issue is the overall story which is a little muddled as well as unfocused. I recommend this though as it is very good at balancing the drama as well as the humor of which it has in abundance. It is very well directed and the dialogue is terrific with the subject matter taken very seriously as the stakes for everyone were high. It may seem along time ago when this game occurred but the echoes through time are evident in our present day.
“Battle of the Sexes” is out on DVD & Blu-ray on the 11th January 2018.